The WhyPhone

I am not the gadget geek my friends and family believe me to be. No, really. As a tech reviewer for a dozen years I remain perpetually cynical toward the hot new media platform toys. Portable digital book readers? I sniffed at them in 1998 and refuse to drink Amazon’s Kindle Kool-Aid this time. The Tablet PC, which many digital magazines once considered their launchpad to ubiquity, always looked like a minor niche play. And the relentless crop of miniature internet devices and appliances, such as today’s Nokia N810, are wonderfully doomed to failure. Get a good phone and data plan instead.

Cool gadgets alone do not change engrained media consumption habits. It took nearly 2 decades for PCs, broadband, and ease of use finally to converge to the point that Googling for the answer to anything became a reflex. Media change is a long, complex, and very unpredictable interplay of cultural, technological, and economic forces slowly transforming conventions over time. No single device is responsible for such shifts. They represent the accumulated energy of many confluent forces.

All that said, keep your eye on that rascally iPhone, because it represents the future.

No, I did not drink Steve Jobs’ Kool-Aid. In fact, I don’t think that the iPhone itself will necessarily be the dominant phone platform. Instead, it is a leading indicator of how the mobile game is about to change. In less than a year on the market, and in only a few million hands, the iPhone’s web browser has already cracked the top 10 in market share. That means that an enormously disproportionate amount of web traffic comes from this device. Turns out people really do want to access web data from a mobile device that is actually capable of delivering a worthwhile experience.

Another number relating to a changing business model bears watching. When Apple recently made its SDK available to developers, more than 100,000 people downloaded it in under a week. A better number is 70/30. That is the publisher-to-provider revenue split Apple will offer publishers who sell its applications through the iPhone/iTunes store. On a mobile platform where carriers gouge content providers with insanely disadvantageous splits, this opens the market to a reasonable mobile content business model that might support creative development.

Wonder why LinkedIn, Encyclopaedia Britannica, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Yellow Pages, and even digital magazine providers Zinio and Texterity all rushed to make iPhone-specific apps in recent months despite the device’s microscopic share of the handheld market? They rightly see in this device a prescient platform. Whether or not the iPhone is the final word in handhelds, it is the first important word in mobilizing content so that it has enough space and control to distinguish a content brand. Again, I have no doubt that the open platform Google is proposing via its Android SDK will mimic some of the iPhone’s creative flexibility and open its business models even further.

The most exciting part of this evolution in mobile is the new role it takes in the enterprise and every level of business information. Take one look at the LinkedIn iPhone implementation, and you can see how a phone-to-web interface can be a visual map of your business social network and a real research tool. A number of iPhone and other advanced mobile sites tie a user’s mobile content experience (iGoogle, NYTimes’s to their web experience.

In this model the content is not mobile; you are. The phone becomes a way we communicate with and through our own virtual cloud of ever-present contacts, ordering systems, and databases from various screens. That is the shift in thinking a truly mobile web accelerates. Librarians order books for their institutions when they see them in a retail bookstore. Trade show attendees press a key at the same time on their respective phones and their full contact info zaps into their contact databases. On the train in to work, on your flip phone, you scan and flag the three business headlines you need to read today and their full text is on your desk screen waiting for you.

Technology does not cause cultural shifts. Nevertheless, really important tech, like the Brownie camera, Walkman, IBM PC, and iPod tend to organize and re-imagine our relationship to media in ways that do become changes of habit. We, not our content, are about to become always-on and mobilized.